County investigates ways to preserve ranching heritage

Plan includes education, incentives and support

Gunnison County laid out a plan for conserving the area’s ranchlands for future generations at a regular meeting of the Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday, July 15.


County attorney David Baumgarten presented the Gunnison County Ranchland Initiative to the commissioners, who were happy to see the comprehensive plan, even if it was only a draft.
The two-page outline details the reasons ranching and ranchland are important to the county, how they are being threatened and ways the community can counter those threats.
“This is more comprehensive than I was expecting,” said board chairperson Hap Channell. “I can see a ranching commission in the county where people come together and devise educational strategies and get together to discuss ranching issues and flesh out some of these things with this level of detail.”
The document was produced over the course of six weekly meetings through a collaborative effort by a group of five people, including Baumgarten, a Gunnison Valley rancher and several county staff members.
But the plan is just the most recent iteration of some seasoned ideas.
“It has been two or three years that we’ve been talking about this,” said commissioner Paula Swenson. “It is really nice to see it on paper. And I think maybe we can move forward with some of these.”
Reading from the plan, Baumgarten showed how ranching provides food and agricultural products that are the “basis for a sound local and national economy,” and provides the county with several economic benefits.
“One of the things we speak of in that room … is that if we don’t like relying on other countries for our petroleum products, wait until we depend on other folks for our food,” he said.
According to the plan, ranching provides several other indirect benefits to the community, like the ability to keep water here both legally and physically, maintaining a rural landscape, providing habitat for wildlife, and benefiting industries such as tourism, real estate, skiing and hunting, among other things.
But perhaps most important, Baumgarten said, the ranching community “keeps the western culture alive and connects the community to the land.”
The other half of the need for a countywide effort is the loss of ranchland to development, and the community’s desires to make the area an attractive place to live. Development creates problems with fencing, trespassing, livestock harassment and irrigation, the plan notes.
“Ranching income does not compare to selling the land and water rights for development,” observed Baumgarten. “There is little financial incentive to keep land in ranching.”
The first approach the county will take in swaying public opinion toward understanding the needs of the ranching community and its importance to the region is through education.
“Often, new residents and visitors in Gunnison County do not have an understanding of ranching and agricultural practices, and complain frequently about something that they perceive as an inconvenience, but may be of paramount importance to the ranching community,” said Baumgarten.
But the task of educating the public on such a broad and important issue will need to be a collaborative effort with strong leadership, said Sandy Guerrieri, owner of the Mill Creek Ranch and one of the five originators of the plan.
“I think that what we envisioned is that there are so many entities out there, we would really like the county to take the lead on the education component so you can pull all of those entities together and decide how that education component is going to go,” said Guerrieri.
One way the plan suggests combating the problem of land being lost is through a “Voluntary Incentive Land Use Process,” which provides a voluntary, flexible process with incentives to keep land in ranching, said Baumgarten.
Some of the 13 characteristics of the Land Use Process detailed in the plan are that it should be designed to “foster continued ranching, make sure that the process is focused and timely.” But Baumgarten said that foremost, it should ensure that the process is voluntary, incentive-based, and clearly understood that it may not be for everyone.
In conclusion, Baumgarten said the group wanted to include the county’s support on emerging ranching issues, like the status of the Gunnison sage grouse and prairie dog, along with other wildlife issues and areas of ranching concern.
According to Baumgarten, the group will continue to meet each Wednesday morning to improve on the draft of the plan, while still providing the commissioners with a direction for the preservation of the county’s ranchland.

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